I’ve been thinking about blood a lot lately.
Blood I’ve spilt, and blood I’ve seen spilt. The red fluid gushing out of a beheaded rattlesnake’s body, sizzling as it splattered onto the hot Mexican soil. The crimson seeping out of the crushed chest of a fourteen year-old boy, opened up like a book as the doctors tried to massage his heart back into life. We cut the snake into strips and fried the meat over an open fire. And as for the boy, there was simply too much of him smeared across the front grill of a wrecked car, and his poor heart had nothing left to pump.
I think about my own, the biological magma that during the summers of my childhood would spontaneously erupt in a series of unpredictable nosebleeds, leaving permanent stains on my shirts and pillowcases. Once, as a teenager, I awoke from a particularly vivid dream about murder and mayhem to find my face and hands coated with blood, momentarily horrified to think I had become some murderous somnambulist.
Some of those bleeds were so strong they seeped through my fingers, even though I pinched my nostrils closed hard enough to make my fingers ache. My pediatrician could never find anything medically wrong. It was as though my body was just too small a container for my life.
These days I give it away, one pint of Matt-brand O+ offered up every nine weeks or so. The ladies in the blood mobile love my large, generous veins, so easy to hit with the needle.
It’s a strange thing, blood. You can never predict how a person will respond to the sight of it. Some people faint, some vomit, some are ambivalent, some are fascinated, some stimulated into a state of extreme sexual arousal. Once a month its appearance is a sign of healthy fertility, yet in many cultures menstruating women have been forced to spend this time in exile, somehow marked as “unclean” by their ability to create life. For Indo-European pagans, the act of sprinkling blood on a person during a ritual sacrifice was called bleodosian, a term later co-opted and transmuted by the Christian church into the word blessing.
It never really comes out. Eight years ago my sister’s ex-boyfriend shot two people on our front porch. We sold the house and moved on, but the stains on the concrete remain, enduring sun and rain and the passage of time.
Among its other contents, my blood contains the proper genetic alchemy for brown hair and eyes, astigmatism, male-pattern baldness, a predilection towards cancer, and a susceptibility to chemical dependency. If certain parties are to be believed, it may also contain the right codes for a greater abundance of melanin in my skin, a longer stride, congenital heart disease, and…a susceptibility to chemical dependency. But while being an O+ means I can give to anyone else with a positive blood type, I can only receive from other Os. My blood marks me as a giver, not a taker.
But is that me, these components? If you were to unspool the chain of my DNA and climb it, what would be waiting at the far end? A set of model kit instructions for assembling my physical self, certainly, but while all those pieces make me, do they define me?
They say blood—and thus, DNA—is thicker than water. That it is the inseparable bond which holds families together, the ultimate yardstick for measuring loyalty and allegiance. To feel particularly close to someone is to love them like family. And to go against the family is to commit the worst trespass.
They say an oath written in blood is one that cannot be broken.
I say, fuck that.
For my 1000 Words entry, I detailed the revelation that I might in fact be the bastard child of my abusive stepfather, an event that was pivotal in the formation of my identity as an adult. One of the larger bits of fallout from the detonation of that particular emotional atom bomb was the development of my belief that people don’t get a free pass simply because we happen to share genetic material. This belief, and my willingness to act on it by writing that essay, has cemented my position as the family pariah. Most of them no longer speak to me, and I am not invited to holiday gatherings. I’ve gone against the blood.
Maybe this should upset me, but it doesn’t. Part of this status is self-imposed. The truth is, I’ve long felt closer to those I call “friend.” The people I’ve chosen to have in my life have often felt more like the traditional definition of “family” than the one I was born into.
I suspect that I am expected to cover up or avoid the question of my conception and birth, out of deference to someone else’s embarrassment or shame, but I won’t. I’ll discuss it with anyone who’s curious, and have done so for years. During the recent TNB gathering in Los Angeles, it came up in separate discussions with Lenore, Duke, Simon and Zara, each conversation inevitably coiling around to the question everybody asks: “Don’t you want to know? Aren’t you curious?”
No, I don’t. I reject the notion that my blood—my genetics, my DNA—define my identity. These things may be what I am, but they are not who I am. I’m a being of will and choice. The qualities—and flaws—of my character belong to me, and no one else. The quantitative concept of my Self cannot be measured under a microscope. I would gain nothing from this knowledge.
These conversations started the little hamster in my head busily spinning on his wheel. The denial of my stepfather’s claim to parentage has been ongoing for so long that it has, like my blood, simply become another part of me. But things have changed. I became the first person in my family to earn a master’s degree, survived a natural disaster, turned thirty and (hopefully) shed the last of my post-adolescent angst. I’m comfortable enough now with my identity to understand that it doesn’t need to shaped around a question mark. I must admit that I am curious after all.
Regardless of the outcome, I’ll still be my own bastard, not anyone else’s.
My blood, it seems, is relevant again.
I spoke with a coworker, a geneticist by trade, about getting a DNA test done, envisioning some sterile, CSI-like scene: a scientist spinning vials of the red stuff through a centrifuge in some chromed, blue-lit lab while a Massive Attack tune plays in the background. I was crushed to learn that for about $30 I could purchase a kit from any pharmacy in the U.S. All that was required was a cheek swab from myself and another willing donor and a processing fee of about $125, all of which I could mail in. No blood required.
For less than $200 out-of-pocket I could know, conclusively. “Willing donor,” however, is a stickler. The few members of my family who maintain contact with me are either from my mother’s side of the fence, are too distantly related to be a viable candidate, or live too far upstate.
I have stepsister, my stepfather’s daughter from a previous marriage, and the knowledge that she may actually be my half-sister weighs on my mind. It’s like a patina of dust, barely there yet persistently reappearing every time you think you’ve wiped it away. Though we are only six months apart, I did not include mention of her in my 1000-word piece because by that point she had written herself out of the story of my life. She went to live full-time with her mother when I was fourteen, and aside from a few letters and one phone call during our freshman year of college, we have not communicated with each other since.
More than anything else now I want to know if the substance that runs in her veins is anything like mine.
She lives here in town. I obtained her phone number a few years ago. It’s written down in my address book, and even programmed into my cell phone. But I’ve never called it. After so much time we’d be strangers to each other. Were it not for the question of a few red cells suspended in plasma we would not be entering each other’s orbit at all. It’s unlikely there would be any sort of joyous reunion in learning we’re really siblings, or that she would even care enough to donate a sample. Her battle into adulthood wasn’t bloodless either, and as someone who has had his own wounds forcibly reopened for another’s benefit, I find that I cannot bring myself to risk potentially doing so to her.
For over ten years I’ve been content, and even proud, to live without knowing. I think I’ve got it in me to keep going a while yet. She is who she is, and I am who I am.
A little blood isn’t going to change that.
A note from the Dept. of Credit Where Credit’s Due: This essay was inspired in part by my recent re-reading of Zara Potts’s excellent “Bloodless.” You do yourself a disservice by not reading it.